Key developments: George Zimmerman was an aggressive bouncer who was fired from his job in 2005 at the age of 21. Trayvon Martin wanted to be an aviation mechanic or engineer. Besides the media really, really wanting to continue pushing the mug shot image of Zimmerman and the cute young boy image of Trayvon Martin – what with their not looking into the positive relationships that Zimmerman had such as his mentorship, along with his wife, of kids in their city – Zimmerman suffers a natural barrier in this media perception game. Which is why the exploration of Martin’s social media is so important: Trayvon Martin’s acquaintances will not be as forthright or condemnatory of Martin as Zimmerman’s past acquaintances would be of Zimmerman. It’s part no-snitch culture and it’s part a difference in the perception of what constitutes “aggressive” or noteworthy behavior. What was aggressive behavior to Zimmerman’s acquaintances – either his friends or his coworkers – is not likely to be considered aggressive by Trayvon Martin’s crew. And if it were, it’s not like they’d tell a reporter anyway. So we’ll never be able to compare apples to apples here.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes something on the topic that deserves response:
But what, precisely, is the relevance of wearing gold grills? What, specifically, is the pertinence of having once given an obscene gesture? Why, exactly, does it matter that Martin’s imagination sometimes ranged into profane thoughts of sex and violence? How does any of this help us understand his killing at the hands of by George Zimmerman?
It seems pretty clear to me, but I doubt that Coates et al will agree. I compare it to the Broken Windows Theory
espoused by the late James Q. Wilson. I believe that his theory of the psychological impact of environment on social behavior and crime can be applied to the individual. I’m struggling to come up with a name to describe it. Once certain infrastructure becomes ungrounded, debilitated, or broken, a new equilibrium is achieved. In a neighborhood, broken windows and dirty streets prime individuals for grime and crime. It becomes the new norm. The same process occurs at the most atomistic level – the individual. One minor break can cascade down into fundamental decay. This is especially true for young men. I’d add that it is even more the case for young black
men who have unique pressures; the culture to which many black men are drawn holds “broken windows” up as some sort of ideal. The actual process of breaking windows – socially or individually – is a laudible act of defiance. Problem is, it primes the pump for more of the same and too often ends in prison or death.
Once a person commits themselves to fighting, stealing, or operating outside of what is deemed “polite” society – they are temporarily lost. Grills and weed and just playing at being hypersexual or violent are the foothills to that mountain. The person – the kid – perhaps will rope off a few years of crude, lewd, criminal, and perhaps violent behavior because, “well, hell” he thinks, “I’m already a bad guy”. When the barrier between nice kid and wayward teen or angry young man is broken, it is damn near impossible to reclaim innocence. It’s like pushing toothpaste back into the tube.
I think of my dad. I think he’d agree with me that he could have justifiably been shot in the name of self-defense, tresspassing, or other petty crimes on many, many occasions. My dad grew up in a Catholic orphanage in England (granted, with its dearth of guns). Being held to strict standards, it was easy for him to see himself as some sort of demon after he’d fallen on the wrong side of morality. So small cracks became bigger. In his mind he was already destined for Hell. Taking a pound from a stranger or pinching some fruit helped reassure him that he was evil, and if he was already evil what would be lost by upping the ante? Small defiance markers – piddly tattoos and bovver boots
and hash and even rock and roll – were part of the transition. Before long my dad was just a bad kid. Or, rather, he was a multifaceted individual that embraced his bad side because it was oh so easy and because it was his social currency.
My dad was Trayvon Martin.
To answer Ta-Nehisi’s question: the importance of all of those markers of defiance are that, if Trayvon Martin were capable of attacking George Zimmerman, those behaviors and expressions would be expected to have happened. It’s a cause-causality issue. The grill doesn’t cause Martin to be violent and capable of attacking Zimmerman, but it indicates a willingness or a capability of doing something like that. Same with Broken Windows – the broken window doesn’t create crime, but it feeds back into a system which becomes complacent or accepting of criminal acts and criminals.